Editors share the best advice they've ever received.
By William Dunkerley
Steve Jobs once advised, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do."
The chief engagement officer at GateHouse Media, Ken Browall, considers that the best piece of business advice he's ever received. He told Editor & Publisher that for him "the intensity to ... deliver engaging journalism has been a labor of love."
We asked a group of Editors Only readers, "What's the best editorial advice you've ever received?" None quoted Jobs. But you can see from their responses that a passion for doing good work is a motivating force.
Looking over the advice the editors passed on, I see their comments as falling into six categories: simplify, inspire, scrutinize and check, prepare, strategize, and care about the reader.
The drive to simplify copy drew the most responses. Here's what editors reported:
"Best advice: Keep it short and get right to the point." --Sara Martin, editor, Monitor on Psychology
"When I was an investigative reporter for a newspaper, my editor, the late Robert E.L. Baker, told me to 'write with a scalpel, not a meat axe.'" --Rick Pullen, editor-in-chief, Leader's Edge magazine
"The best editorial advice I ever got was to KISS it, i.e., 'keep it simple, stupid.'" --Kathleen Flores, director of student publications, University of Texas at El Paso
"Eliminate these two words from everything you edit and your writing will be more concise and more precise: 'there' and 'use' in all variations." --Margaret Hunt, editor, ASM International
"Cut as many words as you can without losing meaning. Then go back and do it again." --Patrick G. Marshall, author
"As an editor of magazine stories, what I always want a story to do is move me in some way. There are other parts of the day where I can actually learn something. But when I'm editing a magazine story I'm thinking about what I want the reader to get from it. I want it to be an experience, and what I want most from that experience is to be moved." --David Rowell, deputy editor, The Washington Post Magazine
Scrutinize and Check
"I was told early on that one of the best traits that a journalist could possess or develop is a 'healthy dose of skepticism.' Not cynicism, but skepticism. And note the important qualifier -- healthy. Don't take information at face value, and always check, check, check it out." --Paul McGrath, assistant news editor, Houston Chronicle
"A piece of advice I received early on, one that I've always kept in mind, is to not assume I automatically know how to spell someone's name because it seems so basic. Always ask. Over the years, I've had countless examples like Smythe, Smith, Smyth, and Joanne, Joann, Joe-anne." --Linda Longo, editorial director, enLIGHTenment
"Way back when I was a student working on my college newspaper, I had someone I was interviewing tell me there was only one difference he saw between student reporters and professional reporters. It is not the quality of their writing, but their preparedness. That always stuck with me, and I've always tried to be as prepared as possible for an interview." --Mary Ruth Johnsen, editor, Welding Journal
"I learned how to write direct marketing copy from the circulation manager at Lakewood Publishing. Her teaching approach was brilliant. She said she would only teach me if I wrote one direct mail letter and she wrote one on the same topic. Then we met at her house, sat at the kitchen table, and she went through the two letters word by word. I later used that letter to successfully promote magazine subscriptions of my own. Every editor should learn how to write direct mail copy. Every word has a purpose." --Lee Knight, editor-in-chief, Exhibitor Media Group
Care about the Reader
"James J. Kilpatrick came to speak at Ohio University, where I was attending back in the late 80s.
"He used an analogy I think of often: Pretend in your writing that you're taking someone around a place you're familiar with. They know nothing about it, and it's up to you to describe it for them.
"Can you put yourself in that reader's place? Will they know where they are by the words you use? What they're doing? Whom they are meeting?
"Editing is just the same. Will the reader understand if I do this? Or that? Or nothing?
"It's all an empathy game.
"Bottom line is: Do you care about that reader? Do you know that reader? Are you sure? And in the end, when you're done, have you taken them somewhere?
"These are the questions to ask." --Peggy Jordan, associate editor, Family Motor Coaching magazine
William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.
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Editors share the best advice they've ever received.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
By Peter P. Jacobi
Longtime editor of Commentary magazine Norman Podhoretz once described the writer's block illness this way: "What happens to a blocked writer is this: not only is he unable to finish anything he starts, but after a while, he literally forgets how to write, becoming tangled in syntax and lost in grammar ... there is nothing to do but stop." Sounds like a grim situation, way beyond what gets into me.
Novelist and journalist Joan Didion's problem sounds similarly desperate: "There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic." Sounds desperate, much more so than I allow myself to get.
Grim and desperate the situation can be. Solutions are offered everywhere: 14 tricks, 5 creative cures, 12 steps, 18 ways, and "27 Ways to Crush It Forever" ("Talk to an imaginary friend," "Curse like a sailor," "Take a short trip," "Listen to the rain," "Create weird challenges," "Get your inner critic on your side"). None of that sounds crushing to me, although physical removal from one's site of writing has been mentioned by more than a few of those who went through such mental upheaval as, indeed, at least a path toward a cure.
Don't Settle for Good-Enough Writing
Widely published writer and longtime teacher of writing Anne Bernays is, in my view, farther along a road to recovery when she says: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently. You can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected."
Not only does a reader require that. So does the writer. You need to be surprised, provoked, astonished by the material or the approach or the focus or the message that is your purpose as writer of a particular assignment. You need to make the process interesting by collecting the right stuff to write about. That might be enough to jar you loose of the block.
Striving for a new path in your use of words; searching for something that stimulates your ears; getting freshly excited about how to make the most of our glorious English language: any of these might lead you back to paper or computer screen.
Accept the Challenge
Accepting the block as a reality, try against your feelings to begin a project early, so to allow for time to rest or music listening or walks around the block or snack-times along the way.
Most of all, I fear you simply have to be strong enough to overcome the block by realizing that being a writer is your chosen profession, and to serve it requires enough emotional strength to defeat what has become a stumbling block. Accept it as your duty. Fight the weakness as would a soldier. Then, don't look back. Don't look ahead, at least not too far. Labor in the present and let the words flow, one word after another, phrase after phrase, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and onward.
It can be done.
Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.
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Assessing the readability of a Newsweek.com excerpt.
This month's Fog Index text comes from an April 27 article on Newsweek.com ("Record Levels of Toxic Flame Retardants Found in College Dorms" by Douglas Main). Here's the sample:
"Regardless of how much risk these chemicals pose, it's a good idea to try and limit your exposure to them, scientists agree. Dodson recommends replacing furniture if it's more than a few years, as new furniture is less likely to contain flame retardants, and also making sure the product is made without flame retardants. Regularly vacuuming and dusting, pursuits that college students aren't particularly known for. also help enormously. Diamond also suggests ventilating rooms to avoid a build of chemicals leaching from furniture and electronics, almost all of which contain flame retardants. She also advises to not eat with your hands after touching electronics like cell phones, tablets and keyboards, all of which contain flame retardants."
(Note: The stray period in sentence 3 appears in the original. We've changed it to a comma in the edited version below.)
--Word count: 116 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (22, 32, 15, 23, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (19/116 words)
--Fog Index: (23+16)*.4 = 15 (15.6, no rounding)
Here we have a somewhat scientific discussion. It is often harder to cut the fog in samples like this because so many technical terms are involved. Let's see if we can
"No matter how much risk these chemicals pose, scientists agree it's a good idea to limit your contact with them. Dodson advises replacing furniture that's more than a few years old, as new pieces are less likely to contain flame retardants. You should also make sure the product is made without the chemicals. Regular vacuuming and dusting, pursuits that college students aren't well known for, also help a lot. Diamond also suggests ventilating rooms to avoid leaching of chemicals from furniture and electronics, almost all of which contain flame retardants. She also advises to not eat with your hands after touching electronics like cell phones, tablets and keyboards. These all contain flame retardants too."
--Word count: 114 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (20, 21, 12, 16, 21, 18, 6)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (12/113 words)
--Fog Index: (16+11)*.4 = 10 (10.8, no rounding)
We wrestled a bit with this one to bring down the Fog score. We were able to split up two longer sentences, making 7 sentences out of 5. We also reduced the number of longer words by nearly one third. Our changes ultimately cut 5 points from the original Fog Index.
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In the news: How struggles for city magazines reflect wider industry trends.
What's in store for city magazines? In a recent cjr.org piece, Tony Rehagen reminisces on more prosperous days in the category and looks ahead at what lies in store for it. The news, he tells us, is a mixed bag: "For the most part, publishers and editors tell me that city magazine circulation -- home-delivery subscriptions and newsstand sales -- has remained steady. Digital editions have been slow to get off the ground. But the true bedrock of the city-mag business model, print advertising, disappeared with the economic collapse in 2008 and never came back."
Once city magazines had to look beyond print advertising revenues to remain profitable, other revenue streams came into play. As is the case in other categories, some city publishers are now exploring custom publishing and events to increase visibility and expand revenue. But despite all these changes, Rehagen says, "The physical edition is the core of the brand, and its prominence is crucial in making other ventures successful." Read the full article here.
Amazon Testing Digital Subscription Service
This week, Amazon unveiled Subscribe with Amazon. The new service allows publishers to offer subscriptions to their digital magazines through the retailer. According to Max Willens of Digiday.com, Amazon will take a 30 percent cut in the first year and 15 percent thereafter. It's a sizable cut of the winnings, but, as Willens notes, "while most publishers are experiencing their share of platform fear and loathing, the arrival of another subscription seller fills a need that's been growing as newsstands and bookstores have closed." Read more here.
"Read Like Your Enemies Will"
Last month, AARP: The Magazine editor Bob Love offered up editorial wisdom (including the quote above) at the Folio: Association Media Summit in Washington, DC. In his keynote address, he broke down the similarities and differences between association and consumer publishing. Read the entire address here.
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